It was not yet 8 on a routine Wednesday morning in June, and Rick Court was letting out primal grunts in the Maryland football team’s weight room.
The 37-year-old strength and conditioning coach easily could have been confused for one of the defensive backs or linebackers who were groaning between every last rep of deadlifts. He wasn’t merely off to the side observing the spectacle he had created.
Instead, he was running around like a madman with his muscles bulging through his white T-shirt, squatting closer to his players’ anguished faces as they raised absurd amounts of weight. He stuck ammonia inhalant packets near some of their noses to give the players an adrenaline rush, then congratulated them on their completed sets by violently slapping them in the chest. That’s how Court shows love.
“Tempo! Tempo! Tempo!” Court screamed, and with that he sounded like a spitting image of Maryland’s head coach, DJ Durkin. There’s a reason Court was the first call Durkin made when he was hired by Maryland in December 2015.
Durkin not only coveted the reputation Court had built at Mississippi State as one of the country’s top strength coaches, but he also needed a like-minded extension of himself, a presence that could help implement his vision as he began trying to pull Maryland out of football mediocrity.
“I think that’s probably the most important relationship. To me, if the head coach and the strength coach are not totally in line with one another, there’s something that’s going to miss,” Durkin said. “Me and Rick are in line. . . . He has a tremendous amount of energy, passion for what he does. He’s loyal and honest. That’s all you need right there.”
The role of strength coaches in college football cannot be understated. This especially is true during summer, when the head coach and on-field assistants are limited in their contact with players by the NCAA; instead, the coaches spend much of July on vacation.
As the staff member who spends the most time with the players in the summer — it’s similar in December, when Durkin and his assistants are on the recruiting trail during winter conditioning — Court is entrusted to deliver a finely tuned roster by the time fall camp arrives in early August.
“The carryover I want is, that they understand the urgency, the aggressiveness and the passion to go get better to go play football,” Court said. “The strength coach’s job is to get them in better shape, and to get stronger, but I think an inherent part of what we do is to let the aggressiveness out, to let the urgency out and just gaining an un-denying realm of confidence.”
Yet Court, a man who even chugs his coffee with conviction and works out daily with his staff, must put an equal amount of energy in ensuring that his staff monitors player safety. College football largely has an unchecked conditioning culture — that issue was raised again earlier this year when three Oregon players were hospitalized after a strenuous workout — and Court constantly is reminding his staff about the well-being of players.
He wants to be on the cutting edge of that effort, too. Maryland gives players hydration tests before each practice and builds in neck exercises at least three times a week to help with concussion prevention. Each trainer is outfitted with a card that details any players’ medical issues, such as sickle cell anemia, concussions or allergies.
“So there’s not ever like a, ‘Oh, I didn’t know’ situation,’ ” Court said. “We’re not like the old-school meathead strength coaches, like, lift, lift, lift. . . . I got to really make sure that I’m thinking about everything else, like safety.”
Court is certainly compensated well. With a salary of $285,000 per year, he’s the 19th-highest-paid strength coach in the country and the third highest in the Big Ten, behind Iowa’s Chris Doyle ($625,000, most in the nation) and Ohio State’s Mickey Marotti ($520,500, third), according to a USA Today database.
He’s also established himself as much more than a strength coach. He’s actively involved with his players’ academics and off-the-field lives. He regularly eats breakfast and lunch with the players. As he wrapped up a session last week, he told the group that any trip they were taking over the Fourth of July holiday must ultimately be approved by their position coaches, and by him.
“I go check in on academics two, three times a day. I go into the cafeteria probably 10 times a day, I go into the training room probably 10 times a day. Very rarely am I just stuck behind my desk. I can’t sit still much anyway,” Court said.
Court branded the motto “juice time,” which has become a popular hashtag on social media accounts associated with the program. He created “The Pit” near the practice field, a gravel area with workout equipment that keeps injured players motivated to rehabilitate instead of idly watching from the sideline.
Those little ticks have helped create widespread buy-in, aside from the controlled rage that Court lets out during each lifting session.
“You know what you’re going to get every day. Just 100 percent energy . . . his energy is contagious. I don’t know too many people that are ecstatic to wake up for a 6:30 or 7 o’clock workout, but I don’t know, somehow I wake up and I’m ready to go,” said senior safety Josh Woods, once a slightly built prospect who used to dread the early-morning weightlifting session but who set a deadlifting personal best last week. “He’s 100 percent crazy. And he’ll tell us, like, ‘Yeah, I’m messed up.’ But that’s part of what makes it fun.”
Said senior linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr.: “We just instantly got the vibe that he was a crazy dude. We had just met him, and he was already screaming at us before we even started working out. So we knew he was serious.”
Court, who grew up in a suburb of Detroit, showed how serious he was as last week’s session ended. His voice was gravelly and his players were tired as they swing ropes together on the field of Maryland Stadium. It couldn’t have been a better start to the fifth week of summer conditioning, he told them, and he later returned to his office to record his thoughts in one of his six notebooks that he carries wherever he goes. His journaling of ideas is a similar practice to that of Durkin, who has scripted much of his first two seasons in College Park on notepads.
“The whole thing with me is, I am what I am. If you ask the kids . . . after one week, they probably thought, ‘These guys are going to get tired or die down,’ ” Court said. “I think at one point, they probably thought everything was going to wear off. And it never wears off.”